April 6, 2014
Lazarus & Ezekiel
“Mortal, can these bones live?” the angel asks Ezekiel in today’s Old Testament reading. Is this a trick question? Ezekiel and the angel are looking out over a field of bones. Dry bones. An ancient cemetery. Surely those bones once lived, but it was a long, long time ago, when they were covered with flesh, with muscles and sinews with veins that pumped hot, red blood. The only plausible answer to the angel’s silly question is, “No, these bones cannot live.”
Similarly, the writer of the Gospel today takes great pains to tell us that Lazarus has been dead for four days. Why? Because In Jesus’ time, it was understood that a person’s spirit left the body after it had been dead three days. The point is made more than once that Lazarus is really, really dead. Can those bones live? Martha’s answer that her brother would be raised on the last day with all the faithful is a more optimistic answer than most people could manage.
What about your dry bones? I know some of you are asking how much more life yours have in them. How much more of a future can you expect when you notice new aches and creaks every day? And in the past three weeks we have lost Cathy Dorner’s mother Madeliene, then Ione Elmer, and now Velma Holte. It’s starting to feel like all we do around here is funerals. And that is just the literal form of death.
In a more metaphoric sense, I know that some of you feel like your soul has dried up, as if you’d cried every last tear you had inside you. Sure you can walk around, but your bones no longer live in any significant way. Or maybe you are taking the broader view, and looking around at the congregation of Trinity Lutheran Church, seeing what I see—a lot of empty pews. An aging congregation in an aging building. A dwindling income that borders on inadequate. Can these bones live? And if so, for how much longer?
Trinity is not alone, of course. Not only Lutherans, but all mainline denominations–Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, and many others—are watching their memberships dip to record lows. People don’t grow up going to VBS and confirmation classes anymore. Sunday morning is more likely to be soccer time, or brunch time, or tee time than church time. Lots of you grieve that your own family members no longer attend worship or participate in church life. Is Christianity dying? Is it, in fact, already dead? Can these bones live?
The obvious answer seems to be “no.” At least, not as we’ve come to understand life. As we’ve come to understand church. Lazarus is deader than a doornail. The bones in Ezekiel’s valley are very, very dry.
But the grave is just the setting for the story. It is not the point of the story. What happens next, when human answers fail and God’s spirit intervenes? Ezekiel, whose only answer to the question “Can these bones live?” is a helpless, “Oh Lord, you know” is instructed to do the strangest thing. He is asked to look head-on at death and to say, “This isn’t the end.” He is told to prophesy to the bones, to tell them that they will once again live. Centuries later, Jesus stands at the grave of the man who’s been dead for four days and tells the group of mourners to roll away the headstone and then commands Lazarus to come out. And today, your pastor stands in front of you, called by God to prophesy to the bones, to call Lazarus to emerge from the tomb.
Can these bones live? I suggest we begin to answer that question the same way Ezekiel does–”O Lord, you know.” Let’s start by acknowledging that God alone knows how to make an impossibility become reality. If the dry bones of Trinity, of the ELCA, of the whole Christian church are to live again, it will not be because we’ve implemented the right evangelism program, or hired the right people, or sung the right songs, or produced the right strategic plan.
Dry bones come to life and a dead man walks because God is hard at work in wondrous and mysterious ways. It is God, not Ezekiel nor the angel, who connects the knee bone to the thigh bone and the thigh bone to the hip bone, etc. in that old song. We do not create new life; God alone can do such a thing. But while God makes life, we are called, like Ezekiel, like Martha and Mary, to do whatever we God requires of us in the meantime.
In Ezekiel’s case, it was to prophesy to the winds. In Martha and Mary’s case, it was to roll away the stone. Such commands seem trivial, pointless. But those who long for new life for ourselves, for the church, and for the world cannot simply sit by idly while God is at work. We are Christ’s body in the world, and we are privileged to be called to participate in preparing for resurrection.
When Lazarus does emerge from the tomb, he is not yet fully restored to community. He is not completely able to celebrate his new beginning. Jesus turns to those who are standing around him, the same ones who have wept and begged for such a moment as this, who now stare in disbelief. Jesus commands them: “Unbind him and let him go!”
THIS is the job of the Church! Unleash the power of new life and release the bonds that keep people hopeless! Likewise, the angel does not call to the dry bones to stand up and become walking, talking witnesses of God’s greatness. The angels tells EZEKIEL to do it! Unbind him and let him Go! Prophesy! God commands us. It is our duty and delight to nurture to wholeness any and all who have been tossed aside like dry bones, who have been cast into the shadows and left for dead.
God’s desire is always for life, life, and more life. Search the Scriptures and you will find that never once does Jesus perform a miracle for any reason other than to bring about life, and life abundant. When he meets hungry people, he feeds them. When he encounters the sick, he heals them. He converses with the lonely and forgives the guilty. He even raises the dead.
And guess what? In baptism we were sealed by the Holy Spirit. In both Hebrew and Greek the word for Spirit is the same word as the word for breath. Ta pneuma. The same wonderful power that moves across vocal chords or through an instrument to create song is what God blew into dust bunnies to create living human beings. It is that same ephemeral, invisible, but indispensible life force that we received in our baptisms. Spirit. Breath. Life. The essence of God.
Sealing us with the Holy Spirit is God’s way to bring life out of death, hope out of despair, and Easter after Good Friday, every single time. Although only God knows how it could be possible, our dry bones, too, have been infused with holy yearning for the health and wholeness of all creation. So unbind it and let it go! Prophecy to the breath, people of Trinity! Wherever there is hopelessness and despair, anxiety and worry, prophesy to the breath! Wherever anyone strains toward life, but is still bound in the graveclothes of fear or prejudice or isolation or shame, unbind them and let them go! Trust that God is already at work there, knitting the bones together in secret, loving care.
We may not see resurrection happening, or understand God’s time line or process, but we can trust the Spirit, the Breath, the Life Force of God to be causing God’s people to rise up and stand strong again, to be adding sinew and muscle and veins to what appears to be dry bones. It is happening to us as surely as a little seed goes into the ground, and nothing appears to be happening for a long, LONG, cold winter. And then. One day little sprouts of green (no bigger than a pinky’s fingernail) start popping out of the ground or out of limbs and branches that look like dead wood. And there it is. Hope. New Life. God. Breath. Spirit. Bones connected. Tomb empty. We are not over when we think we are. And to that, what can we say but, “Thanks be to God”?